It's So Easy to Steal Stuff With Civil Forfeiture That Cops Are Getting Picky


Iowa State Patrol

The New York Times listens in on recordings of civil forfeiture seminars and discovers that cops like to take people's stuff, especially if it's really nice:

In one seminar, captured on video in September, Harry S. Connelly Jr., the city attorney of Las Cruces, N.M., called [seizable assets] "little goodies." And then Mr. Connelly described how officers in his jurisdiction could not wait to seize one man's "exotic vehicle" outside a local bar.

"A guy drives up in a 2008 Mercedes, brand new," he explained. "Just so beautiful, I mean, the cops were undercover, and they were just like 'Ahhhh.' And he gets out, and he's just reeking of alcohol. And it's like, 'Oh, my goodness, we can hardly wait.'"

As that case illustrates, civil forfeiture—which allows police to take property allegedly linked to a crime without going to the trouble of charging, let alone convicting, the owner—is not just for drug offenses anymore. It also can be used to grab cars and other assets that police say are connected to offenses such as drunk driving, shoplifting, solicitation of prostitutes, and statutory rape. The opportunities for such legal theft are so numerous, in fact, that cops are getting picky:

The seminars offered police officers some useful tips on seizing property from suspected criminals. Don't bother with jewelry (too hard to dispose of) and computers ("everybody's got one already"), the experts counseled. Do go after flat screen TVs, cash and cars. Especially nice cars….

In New Jersey, the police and prosecutors are allowed to use cars, cash and other seized goods; the rest must be sold at auction. Cellphones and jewelry, [a New Jersey prosecutor] said, are not worth the bother. Flat screen televisions, however, "are very popular with the police departments," he said.

The Times notes that grabbing cars can result in "widely varied penalties," since "one drunken driver could lose a $100,000 luxury car, while another forfeits a $2,000 clunker." But under civil forfeiture law, losing your car, cash, boat, or house does not count as a penalty, which is why your guilt need not be proven (or even alleged). In fact, "prosecutors estimated that between 50 to 80 percent of the cars seized were driven by someone other than the owner." It's the property that stands accused, not the owner.